How and why does a democratic country transition into a dictatorship?
Hello and welcome back to your favourite inquiry project. In my previous posts, I went into depth on the differences between dictatorship and democracy and the historical examples of strong democracies falling to tyranny. Today, I will be touching on the final topic for this project, which will act as the culmination of all my research and will ultimately answer the question I based my project on: How do democracies turn into dictatorships? What are the factors that lead to a total governmental collapse and what should we look out for as people who value their freedom?
In virtually all cases of democratic collapse, the erosion of democratic institutions, typically slowly, is the first step in an authoritarian takeover. The gradual dissolution of the free press, an independent judiciary, an impartial electoral system, and the rule of law, begin to unravel the house of cards on which government and society as a whole tend to sit. As many studies have pointed out, this erosion of institutions that society associates with democracy is a very accurate way to determine which countries are close to collapse . When these powerful and integral institutions fall, aspiring authoritarian leaders are able to exploit the ensuing chaos and power vacuum to consolidate their power.
The second step in this process is the promotion of authoritarian and populist ideals. While many aspiring dictators and their followers do believe in a lot of hateful rhetoric, these same people tend to overexaggerate these thoughts in order to unify the public behind a single cause, however harmful said cause might be. By creating an “us vs them” mentality within society, bad actors are able to capitalize on societal divisions, exploit public grievances, and stoke the fear of others . They will typically follow this up by vilifying democratic institutions and eroding public trust by calling these institutions elitist and corrupt. By labelling themselves as the sole, honest voice of the people (cough, Trump), aspiring authoritarians can promise overly simplistic and often violent solutions to all a country’s issues, which can easily rile up the support of a desperate population .
The increased concentration of power is also an important step toward dictatorship. Leaders who enjoy bypassing constitutional constraints, such as refusing a smooth transition of power (cough, cough, Trump), accumulating excessive power, and intentionally weakening political opposition, are ones that we should look out for and speak out against. By co-opting the judiciary, intelligence agencies, and the military, authoritarian leaders can also gradually transform democratic systems into autocratic ones .
On top of slowly dismantling the rule of law, as I touched on earlier, after gaining a significant amount of power and control over a country, aspiring dictators will choose to cut back on human rights and civil liberties. In order to consolidate their powers, leaders are known to suppress their citizens’ rights of assembly, association, and expression. By doing this and by restricting the media that their citizens are allowed to consume, autocratic leaders are able to persecute and silence political opponents and dissenters, maintaining control over the society .
The last, and sometimes most impactful step in an autocratic takeover of a democratic state is the international context and/or external factors. It is not uncommon, even for democratic countries such as the United States of America, to provide external support, whether it be through economic, military, or diplomatic means, in order to bolster authoritarian regimes and protect them from international backlash. Take the US and the massive amount of military and diplomatic aid that has been directed toward Israel (as you can see in my featured image!). Due to internal politics and the religious beliefs of many of the country’s politicians and elites, the United States has largely ignored the human rights abuses and illegal settling of the Israeli state and has shielded the Israeli government from international pressure . This has led to increasingly more right-wing governments forming in the Middle Eastern country, with recently proposed electoral reform threatening to dismantle its democracy from the inside. However, a lack of effort to promote the ideals of democracy and engage in international relations can also in fact help dictators consolidate their power and enact an autocratic regime .
All in all, the collapse of a democratic state and the rise of an authoritarian regime is a convoluted, complex, and often winding path. While my blog post is decently thorough, there are obviously far more factors that affect the outcome of a country and its people. That being said, being aware of the most common signs of an autocratic takeover is important if we wish to safeguard democratic values for years to come. By staying active in your country’s democratic institutions, such as town halls, referendums, and most importantly, elections, you can help fend off authoritarian intrusions into your community, province, and maybe even country .